lazy repost, as a precursor to another conversation

You might have already read this a few months back when it was a guest post on Creideamh. If so, you can move along. Nothing to see here folks! I have re-posted it now because I am planning to have some conversations in the realm of body image but specifically on the still-taboo topic of fatness. But for now, a recap:

The Cheerful Heart Has a Continuous Feast

So you may or may not already be aware that I am somebody who has struggles with what’s known as “Eating Distress” – a range of eating disorders that have spanned my whole life from early childhood. But this isn’t a confessional – the ED is slowly and methodically being squeezed out of my life as I make room for good mental and physical health. Eating disorders are, of course, a kind of dogged and persistent mental illness of which abnormal food behaviours are merely a symptom. It is a grave mistake to imagine that enforcing “normal” food behaviours resolves ED. The underweight person is told, “Eat more.” The overweight person is told, “Eat less.” No shit, Sherlock. This kind of approach to curing someone of ED is akin to putting makeup on a cancerous facial tumour, putting a nice shirt on over a gunshot wound or injecting painkillers into a hopelessly torn ligament right before the match. You might think I’m being a tad hyperbolic, but unfortunately ED kills, regardless of the weight of the sufferer, and where it doesn’t kill, it almost always leaves permanent damage to the body even after recovery, whether that be osteoporosis, heart conditions, joint problems, muscle loss, hair loss, infertility, fatigue, blood disorders or hormonal disorders. That’s the short list.

And as I wind my way through the murky maze of exposing and undoing the distorted thinking of the condition I find myself beginning to see things how they really are. I came across this article last week, and have decided that it sums up perfectly the utterly broken vision we hold as a society of what health actually looks like. The cult of athleticism, of toned bodies, of will-power to self-deny, the frenzied embrace of restrictive diets all in the pursuit of the body as the perfect ornament swells with the self-righteousness of its participants and the envy of its onlookers. A woman at 39 weeks pregnant runs the Chicago marathon, with the blessing of her medical doctor, and is lauded in the media for her unflinching determination to cross the finish line. I am agape that she would put her body through such an ordeal, but I am not surprised. I sit with women like her in group therapy every week – women who run on injuries, who over-train to the point of exhaustion, who cannot eat a meal without paying for it, all in the name of our ultimate cultural value – thinness. There might have been a day when she was my hero. Such discipline! Such self-denial! Thinness is the private motivation of the ED sufferer – the socially acceptable one is “health”. Their friends and family look on with wonderment and praise as they train 4 hours a day in the gym on a diet of 600 calories while the muscle of their hearts burns away and their periods vanish. If (as I used to during certain eras of the condition) I headed to the gym seven days a week or, gritting my teeth, pounded my way through self-punishing boot-camp style exercise regimes, I was rewarded with mountainous praise. Every pound I lost was considered a virtue gained. Every grilled fish and salad meal was a plate of pulsating morality.

You know, it’s a miracle that the woman in this article managed to bring a baby to term at all. Thank God for that child who managed to survive in spite of the six and a half hours of intensely stressful pavement-thumping that preceded her entry into this fucked up world.

Most people with ED are not just food-deniers. They are also secret bingers and/or purgers. Occasionally the body’s instinct for survival kicks in and they are forced to succumb to a binge of astronomic proportions. ED is all about excess. You cannot seem to walk a balance, on anything. You swing from periods of excessive starvation, excessive exercise to excessive eating and unflinching lethargy. The “all or nothing” mindset of someone with ED means that their life is the eternal tossing of the same coin – heads being denial and tails being excess. Denial of nourishment, denial of what the body or mind needs, denial of self-care and self-respect and self-kindness; excess of exercise, excess of junk food, excess of restriction, excess of self-abuse and self-loathing. You might be surprised to learn that people with ED come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them live by the very same practices. The body does its best with the abuse it receives as the metabolic rate struggles to compete with its periods of famine and feast. And yet all of these are merely symptoms of the problems, and not the problems themselves.

So what are the problems, exactly? It’s going to depend on the sufferer. The reasons why women (and of course men) develop ED are unique to the individual. But at root, in each person, is the inability to value oneself. That is a simple sentence. Short, blasé. Easy to miss. But learning to value oneself when one has considered oneself of no value, for a plethora of reasons, since early childhood, is an enormous feat. The strange and abnormal food-behaviours offer relief to the harsh reality of the inside of one’s mind from where there is no escape. The mental assaults of ED are particularly vicious when on holidays – not simply because sand and sunshine bring all those issues of body-image to the fore – but because there is always an expectation that with vacation comes an escape from it all. “It all” remaining inside one’s head is a difficult 24/7 reality. I recall when I decided that there was one food behaviour that I could no longer live with, and I quit it cold-turkey. Left without any buffer or comforter, my brain began to scream, almost literally. I spent a week weeping under a duvet as I experienced for real the distorted thinking of the condition and the pain of my own realities without anything to ease it. That was probably not a good idea. ED has its uses, you see. It gets you through hard things, because you don’t have the normal kinds of supports and practices that other people put in place to get through them. If you remove the ED behaviours, you find yourself in a pit of despair with no ladder out. Better then, to take the route of learning new methods for getting out of the pit. Learning these methods also means there’s no room left for the old methods. This has the side-effect of uncovering the reasons for being in the pit in the first place.

So. This post was supposed to be about how you should not run a marathon when you are pregnant. I am guessing most of you don’t need to be told that. And I suppose in a way, it still is about that. Essentially what I am getting at here with the ED/cultural distortion/cult of health thing is that somehow we have forgotten that our bodies are not merely ornaments, but instruments. They are instruments of living. They are not something separate from “us” to be whipped into shape, but rather they are treasures to be kept safe, nourished well and used to fulfil our hopes. My arms might be fat but they are good at comforting. My middle might be soft but it’s a good place for my husband to lay his head. And my calves might be wide but they walk me thousands of miles.

Here’s to balance in that walk.

Your Correspondent, Every muscle in her body is getting a workout, especially her big fat mouth.

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4 Responses to lazy repost, as a precursor to another conversation

  1. Catherine says:

    Thank you for your reflection and it is great you are getting help and are healing. That story about the pregnant woman sounds crazy to me.

    So does your therapy focus on mental health alone which will then result in physical health? Or is weight irrelevant to health? I struggle to know if wanting to be healthy by eating nutritional food, drinking lots of water, getting fresh air and exercise is a diet (I have always avoided ‘diets’ and see them as repressive) – since late 2010 I have been on MyFitnessPal and have found it so helpful simply keeping track of what I eat, eating ‘treats’ occasionally and getting regular exercise really rewarding and not punitive at all. Is this a diet or an obsessive method of staying fit?

    Is not wanting to be heavy (I find exercise, shopping etc much harder than I used to) buying into society’s demand that health/skinniness equals virtue? I also struggle with the fact that we women are told to love and accept ourselves as we are and yet are also not supposed to be “overweight” for health reasons.

    I am not challenging your blog (although you sound well able for that!) but rather asking for your input. As you can probably tell, I feel confused on the whole issue.

  2. Hi Catherine.

    Thanks very much for your comment.

    Firstly there’s a difference to approaching physical health from the perspective of a mind distorted by the mental condition known as Eating Distress, and approaching physical health from the perspective of a relatively happy and healthy mind. I’m going to presume that you are approaching your physical health from the latter position. If you are happily eating well and exercising and enjoying your body then you are in a pretty lovely place.

    Does my therapy focus on mental health alone? Yes. Because ED is a mental illness. You can’t address mental illness with a diet. Does the perspective still seem crazy to you if it is put like that?

    However there’s a GP and a nutritionist involved in the conversation towards health as well, and part of the mental health recovery is dealing with the mental barriers to proper physical nutrition. However as someone like yourself probably already knows, you can know all the right things to do, and still find yourself unable to do them. The human condition, if you will. :)

    Figuring out why you don’t or won’t or can’t care for your body appropriately is the first step towards learning to care for the body. Caring for the body will mean nourishing it with food and moving it with enjoyable exercise, but not just those things. Coming to appreciate the body for the beautiful instrument it is colours the way in which we feed and exercise it, and even speak to it or about it. These subtle differences are the difference between life and death for people with ED.

    Also, there’s the issue of acceptance. If I can accept my body now, even the aspects that I find uncomfortable, like being overweight, then I am in the best possible position to lose weight and encourage my body towards balance. I mean, I’ve lost weight before. Dramatic amounts of weight – 50-60lbs. Pretty much anyone can lose weight in the short-term. But learning to love my body is a different beast altogether. Learning to love your body allows you to connect with it, and hear its signals. We become over or underweight when we cannot listen to the signals our body is giving us, often because we are using bodily behaviours to drown out mental and emotional issues.

    I suppose my point is that now, I am committed to loving my body. Long term, weight loss will be a part of that. I have been informed by those in the know that recovery of the body is the last stage in complete recovery from ED. Previously, my aim was always simply to lose weight, which I viewed as the solution to all of my problems. You might not agree with me, but personally I consider trusting my body and its natural metabolic processes, and learning to sit with and acknowledge the feelings and fears that rise up from this decision, far the braver option than returning, out of self-hate induced by society’s disgust of fat people, to Weight Watchers.

  3. Catherine says:

    Hi,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. It helps my understanding a lot.

    I didn’t mean to imply that I thought you ‘should’ start to deal with ED with a diet but I was genuinely wondering what the process to full (mental, emotional and physical) health were. But you have explained that very well.

    Thank you very much and I wish you well in your journey. You are exemplary in your courage and desire to love and treat your body well!

  4. No problem, it’s great to talk about it. Thank you for engaging!

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